Ever since the sport of tennis gained reputation and started leaving its mark globally across every habitable continent, there had always been a big question of the best tennis player of a particular year or era. The ATP rankings system serve as the perfect guide to monitor the performances of players as they travel across the globe as a part of the ATP World Tour circuit.
The points that each tournament offers is meticulously divided today. The grand slams, Masters tournaments and lower tier tournaments have a fixed number of points to offer to each player based on his standing in the tournament. This, coupled with the technological method of generating rankings and monitoring them by computers has made it easier for the players and the fans to track their performance chart. It was in 1973 when the computer generated rankings first made their mark. So before 1973 who decided the World’s No.1 ranked player?
Moreover, on many occasions these observers would forget to add points of a certain tournament which would once again disrupt the harmony of the rankings.
A noteworthy point to mention about this time period was that professional players were never given rankings before 1928. It was the amateurs who were ranked as early as 1877 by officials like Karoly Mazak. In the 1920s and 1930s it is believed that there were many teaching professionals in Europe who would take money for rendering their services to the amateur players. But since they took money, they were never allowed to participate in any professional tournament. However, these players did somehow manage to play a handful of tournaments and gained exceptional results. Sources say these players had also made it to the Top 10 rankings of multiple media houses.
Arthur Wallis Myers ,Ray Bowers , Joe McCauley , Bud Collins , Jack Kramer , Lance Tingay, Bobby Riggs are some noteworthy names who had compiled their own list of rankings over the years and published them in their literary works.
“The history leading up to the ranking system included a ‘star system’ as far as entries into the tournaments. Some players would be on a list as players that could help sell tickets for the event and they would have priority over others in acceptance into tournaments. This caused great concern for those that didn’t have a big name and were borderline getting into events. There were definitely some battles with tournaments over this star system.” – Stan Smith
In August 1972, it appeared that the ATP realized that it needed a new definitive system of ranking the players. Jack Kramer, the first and the then ATP executive director consulted the ATP President Cliff Drysdale and players and experts to set up a new practical computer based ranking system. As a result on 23rd August 1973 the first rankings of the ATP were out and Ilie Nastase was the first World No.1.
“We did not want the computer to be used as a way to incentivise a player to enter any particular tournament. In other words, to purely be a way to rank players according to ability. Nothing more. In those early days we also gave points weighted according to the ranking of players he beat. So if you beat a seed, you got more points.”- Cliff Drysdale
The ATP rankings at the start were not accepted straight away. The rankings compiled by journalists and officials were still being published at some intervals of time. Many a times conflicts in the rankings took place between the ATP and other rankings. In 1973 the ATP released 11 issues of rankings. But by 1979, they were more regular by publishing rankings almost every week. It was in the mid-90s when the players and the fans decided to keep the ATP rankings as the standard ranking system.
Initially the method that the ATP proposed for allotting rankings to the players was called an “average system.” In this system the amount of points amassed by the players in one year was divided by 12. The 12 represents the minimum tournaments a players should participate in to gain rankings.
But the average system had a lot of flaws and hence in 1990 the ATP announced a new “Best of 14” ranking system wherein the player’s best 14 results were counted for his rankings. A decade later, the ATP changed the number from 14 to 18. All the 13 results of the player in grand slams and Masters tournaments combined with his five other best performances were taken into consideration.
Today the ATP ranks more than 2000 players over a period of 52 weeks. Every week a supervisor of the ATP provides the rankings coordinators all the data of that particular week. The coordinator further adds this stats into the player’s head to head records, ATP rankings and other statistics. The calculations are now faster and the ATP ranking system is now the most reliable ranking list in the world.
“Every player who earned a prize money cheque in the past 40 years should appreciate the significance and celebrate the creation of the ATP World Rankings with gratitude. Beginning in 1973, no longer was his employment status for the week based upon the discretion of tournament directors Instead, a completely objective system of merit determined whether he played or not, without regard for any other factors except his performance on the courts. Where in other sports, a coach determines your playing time – and ultimately your livelihood – thanks to the ATP World Rankings, tennis is sometimes cruelly but always coldly objective.”- Weller Evans, ex-ATP executive director